Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Remembering our Childhoods Even-Handedly: Reflections on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, Chapters 3-6
Click here for my reflections on Chapters 1-2, which set up the story of this autobiographical novel by Betty Smith.
Francie Nolan deals with memories of both her parents fairly even-handedly. It is amazing to me how she can tell her story in the voice of a mature, wise woman, while reflecting on how she actually did see things while a young girl.
There is no real tenderness between her and her mother, Katie; yet she reveals the particulars of the painstaking ways her mother used to get by for the sake of her children. Her father, Johnny, is an alcoholic, bringing home very little income on his on-and-off-again job as a singing waiter; yet he has a beautiful soul that endears his children to him. She confesses that she did not know she was “supposed to be ashamed” of him.
It is during adolescence that she chooses to start this story; this is the time when the rosy glasses through which we see childhood start to come off. Then comes a stormy several years during which a growing girl’s mother seemingly does very little right, and her father can do no wrong. When we get older, and bear children ourselves, we see more clearly the sacrifices our own mothers have given for us, and see also that our fathers have some foibles that we hadn’t admitted before.
Katie is a genious in the kitchen. She can make all kinds of named dishes out of stale bread. She sends the children off for pennies worth of small ingredients to make a real meal. She has taught them all the “tricks” of dealing with the local shop-owners, such as how to make sure you receive unadulterated, freshly ground meat.
I have inherited the ways of this era, from tales of my second-generation maternal grandparents (whose parents came from Hungary and Italy), and refuse to waste a scrap of food. Rather than use recipes, I go by what I have fresh in the refrigerator. Whatever is oldest is used first. No meatloaf is the same; there is always some “secret ingredient”, which is perhaps some salad dressing that had to be used up soon. And when I make an egg-white cake, I save the yokes. These are whipped up for little ones that need the protein and fat for their developing brains. Ground eggshells can be used in the garden.
And yet, despite all her ingenuity, they always feel hungry. The reader can only feel pain for their empty little tummies. We wonder how the father could possibly drink away his sorrows while knowing he has two starving children at home, collecting junk to sell so they could buy stale bread. And how could he let his wife slave her youth away, scrubbing people’s tenements, including their own so they could have free rent? All he has to do is provide their food, and he is incapable of even that. His daughter truly is gracious in her memory, and yet she is allowing us to see the truth.
Certain quotes of her parents are remembered with sadness. It seems that she got them wrong when she was little, through her desire that things would be a bit rosier. But the actual conversations were clarified as she got older and saw things more realistically.
One night, Johnny goes off in a tangent, confiding to his daughter how he wished he never had any children; that he was never ready for this responsibility and it ruined his life. Suddenly he seems to see the effect of his words on his daughter and he tells her that he loves her.
Their lives are so imperfect, and yet the parents share a tenderness that is hard to believe amidst their turmoil. As Francie lies awake she hears them talking through the night, sharing and reminiscing. These moments, along with the hours spent with her books out on the fire escape in the shade of her beloved tree, seem to give her some peace of spirit.
Why has the author chosen to reveal these painful memories of her past, mixed with the solace of small pleasures? What has this to do with the tree that stubbornly grows through the cement? She has said that this particular tree thrives only in the poor neighborhoods. Is she saying she would not have become a great writer if it was not for her hardships? Certainly her writing would not have the same flavor, the descriptions of a life that could only be shown this way from within.
Her belief in God and faith in his plan is revealed here as well. He knew what He was doing when he planted her in the poor tenements of Brooklyn, with two young parents who didn’t know what they were getting into.
Follow me as I explore the rest of this novel, whether or not you have read it or plan to. “A Tree in Brooklyn” has become a commonly used metaphor in American life. In America, you are what you make your life to be.